In Search Of Kenya’s Paradise Lake

A quest in the wilds for a secret lake in the crater of an extinct volcano.  
Samburu Kenya Africa
A Samburu warrior gazes out from the pool at Samburu-owned Sarara Camp. Photo: Peter McBride

For a recent birthday I received an unusual gift from a friend—a well-worn book with the great title I Married Adventure, purchased at auction because my acquaintance liked the book’s cover: a zebra-stripe pattern. The memoir, published in 1940, sat untouched on my shelf for months until one afternoon, bored, I began reading the brittle, jaundiced pages. The prose was showy, histrionic—like an old Frank Capra movie—yet absorbed me completely. Particularly when I got to the part where the author, Osa Johnson, and her husband, Martin, both natives of Kansas, set off for faraway East Africa in 1921 determined to document on film a land they knew almost nothing about. What, I wondered, were they thinking? And what did they find? Their own piece, it would turn out, of paradise.

An “old Scotchman” had described a crater in northern Kenya “which is on no map ever made of this country,” Blayney Percival, Kenya’s first game warden, dramatically revealed to the Johnsons when they met him in Nairobi, according to Osa’s memoir.

Martin stared at him. “You mean there’s a lake around here nobody knows about?”

“Nobody, and you may be certain I’ve kept my ears open.”

Martin was beside himself with excitement. 

“Well, man alive,” he shouted, “let’s go!”

And so they did, contracting a big-game hunter to supply their safari and lead them across the arid lava fields of the Kaisut Desert, in Kenya’s north, with an army of porters and ox-drawn wagons, eagerly headed in search of a lake they weren’t sure even existed. For long weeks their expedition marched through the inhospitable land until they spotted an extinct volcanic crater in the middle of the desert, climbed its wooded slopes, and found themselves at the edge of a caldera, from which they looked out on a small lake. It was shaped like a spoon, less than half a kilometre wide and about 1.2 kilometres long, and sloped up into steep, wooded banks 200 feet high. A tangle of water vines and lilies—great African lilies—grew in the shallows at the water’s edge. Wild ducks, cranes, and egrets circled and dipped. Animals, more than they could count, stood quietly knee-deep in the water and drank.

“Oh Martin, it’s Paradise!” I said. 

And that, Osa says, was how they discovered Lake Paradise and gave it its somewhat biblical name.

A wonderful, mysterious story, especially for a person like me, who has travelled from one end of Kenya to the other and never heard of Lake Paradise. I immediately researched the name, but even in this age of information there was almost nothing to be discovered about this lake since the Johnsons’ explorations. I found a few undated photos, notices of discontinued safari trips, warnings about difficult travel. It appeared that Lake Paradise—once a Garden of Eden in the middle of a hostile African desert—had in ensuing years vanished.

How was this possible? Did Lake Paradise still exist? And if so, what had happened to the herds of elephants the Johnsons had filmed and the ancient cloud forest that was home to great numbers of leopards, baboons, and African buffalo?

I had wanted, and now I felt compelled, to find out. And so, like the Johnsons 90 years before me, I made plans to search for it. There was only one problem: Like the Johnsons, I needed to find someone who could show me the way.


Sarara Camp Kenya Africa

Brilliant with stars, the night sky hovers above the dining tent at Sarara Camp. Photo: Peter McBride

Cottar’s 1920s safari camp sits in an area of towering escarpments, rolling grasslands, and meandering rivers in southwestern Kenya—a pastoral wildlife arena that teems with leopards, lions, zebras, giraffes, wildebeest, and dozens of other species. Proprietor Calvin Cottar calls this patch of land “the epicentre of the Cottar soul.” His family has a long history here: His grandfather and great-grandfather, both killed by wounded animals, hunted near these hills.

My coming across Calvin Cottar was as serendipitous as my receiving the gift of Osa Johnson’s memoir of Lake Paradise. After several months of investigation, I’d yet to find anyone in Kenya who’d heard of Lake Paradise, let alone was willing to take me there. When I mentioned this to Sarah Robarts, a California friend who was born and raised in Kenya, she said simply, “You should talk to Calvin Cottar. If anyone knows where it is, it’s Calvin.”

Not only did Calvin know where the lake was, but, he told me in an astonishing email, it was his great-uncle, Bud Cottar, who first led the Johnsons to Lake Paradise in 1921. Calvin was as enthusiastic as I was to see what had happened to Lake Paradise in the interim and immediately agreed to be the guide.

The plan was to leave from his camp, on the border with Tanzania, more than 480 kilometres south of Lake Paradise, because Calvin wanted me to experience something of what it might have been like for the Johnsons in the 1920s, an era his outpost evokes. When I arrive at the camp I find a white-canvas big top tent, as from a circus, supported with rough-cut poles and staked with ropes: the heart of Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp. Dusty Oriental rugs cover the floor, and Victorian artefacts—a brass telescope, a windup gramophone, weathered safari hats—decorate a sitting area that looks styled after a colonial corner of the old Lord Delamere Terrace bar in Nairobi.

Because of the distance and difficulty of our expedition, our stay here will be brief; we depart first thing in the morning. I savour my early dinner at a linen-covered table illuminated with candles, then stumble off into the darkness to my tent, following a tall Maasai askari (warrior) carrying a kerosene lantern. I’m intently aware of the worrisome sounds of baboons, a distant coughing leopard, and other night-time bush noises, but I fall asleep almost immediately.


The paved road gives out at Archer’s Post, two-thirds of the way to our destination in northern Kenya, and turns into rutted earth and sand and loose rocks. Just past the strange flat-topped mountain called Ol Doinyo Sabachi—“the mountain where the child got lost”—which marks the southern end of the Mathews Range, we turn west, toward the town of Wamba. Nudging our Land Cruiser along, we look for obscure tracks in the bush-tufted countryside. The sun fell behind the hills some time ago, leaving just a faint glow of light hovering above the silhouetted mountains.

Our road trip so far has taken us from the lush savannah grasslands and soft air of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, where the Cottars are based, to the dusty, paprika red plains of the north. Around Archer’s Post we had been told to search for a sign marking the turn-off toward Sarara, a tented camp in a conservation wilderness area owned by the local Samburu tribe and our lodging for the night. But we see no markers, just antlered gerenuks balancing on their hind legs as they nibble leleshwa leaves and a troop of baboons crossing from one side of the chalky road to the other while vigilant elders watch. Darkness descends quickly. We continue to bump along, every bit as lost as the child for whom the mountain was named.

It’s no coincidence, of course, that we diverted off the main road to Lake Paradise to lunge into these hills that mark the beginning of what some call Kenya’s Lost Land, a forbidding stretch of country troubled by shifta, Somali bandits who steal cattle, poach elephants, and occasionally hijack vehicles. This was the juncture where, on their second expedition to Lake Paradise, the Johnsons had a falling-out with Bud Cottar. The story I’d heard was that upon reaching Archer’s Post, Martin Johnson became determined to find a shortcut to Lake Paradise through the Mathews Range. Bud Cottar adamantly opposed the idea. There was a bit of a standoff, until Blayney Percival reluctantly agreed to go with Martin Johnson in search of the new route. The two set off, leaving Osa and Bud Cottar to mind the camp. In the end, Percival and Martin realised there was no way through the Mathews Range and returned to Archer’s Post. Luckily there is a way to Sarara, and we finally find it.


Elephants Samburu Kenya Africa Wildlife

Elephants by the hundreds roam Samburu National Reserve. Photo: Peter McBrideI’m lying on my bed, my pillow doubled under my head so I can see through the mosquito netting that wraps around me, watching the sun climb over “the mountain where the child got lost.” The acacia-filled plain in front of me is slowly coming to life. Unseen dudus—insects—chirp, click, hum, spring from one tree to another against the background coos of mourning doves.

Directly below my tent shimmers a natural pool rimmed by rocks. Above it, I spot Calvin perched on an outcropping and peering into binoculars. I hurry down the path in the dawning light thinking we might get a little chat in before everyone is up.

“What are you looking at?”

“Smelly ellies,” he answers quietly.

I think he’s kidding, but when I reach the outcropping I see them just below us: two elephant cows and a calf at a watering hole. Calvin and I sit, knees to our chest, looking at the huge grey beasts, which are so close that I can count their eyelashes. Framing the elephants are the ragged peaks of the Lengiyu Hills, poking through a purple layer of morning clouds. I’ve never seen a setting so perfect in my life; it could be a scene from the first day of creation.

The stillness of the morning is broken by a low buzz coming in over the hills to the north. “Must be Ian,” Calvin says, rising. He means Ian Craig, native Kenyan and godfather of Kenya’s community wildlife conservancies, who is flying in to have breakfast with us. Over scrambled eggs and fresh fruit, I ask Craig—who started the first local community conservancy, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, on what was his family’s cattle ranch—how Sarara came to be. He recounts camping here in 1989 when he and his Samburu guide found themselves surrounded by automatic gunfire. Hiding in the bushes and fearing for their lives, they watched, horrified, as a herd of elephants was slaughtered by armed shifta. “They hacked up the elephants’ heads to get at the tusks and then fled in pickup trucks, leaving these bloody corpses behind. That is when I decided something really had to be done.”

In 1997, Craig returned with Kenyan conservationists Hilary and Piers Bastard, who would run Sarara for the local Samburu community, and camped out with them at the spot where he had seen the elephants slaughtered. “We heard leopard every night. We saw many tracks of kudu, and of giraffe, and we saw dik-diks. But there were no elephants. All gone.” By year’s end, Craig and the Bastards had created Sarara Camp. “Now there are some 6,500 elephants around here.”

Kenya Africa Wildlife Giraffes

A mother giraffe nuzzles her baby on a north Kenyan plain at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Photo: Peter McBride

That afternoon we set out to visit a manyatta—the local word for a village, usually five or six mud-and-stick houses surrounded by a thorn-bush fence—where Samburu and Rendille tribespeople live. We drive for an hour, until we come across a group of Rendille who are celebrating a wedding, and stop to observe. The bride, her face masked with a sort of beaded headdress, is lightly holding the hand of the groom as the two dance, bobbing up and down in a circle behind chanting warriors. I recall Osa Johnson writing about a similar ceremony she had observed on the journey to Lake Paradise. Almost a hundred years have passed since the Johnsons travelled this way, yet life here remains remarkably the same.

On the way back to camp, we come across a plenitude of wild animals. There are elephants taking dust baths and tight groups of Grévy’s zebras browsing. At one point we stop to view a handful of giraffes, including a couple of young ones, moving like shadows among the thorn trees. As we pull closer, the calves stop, ears out, their large eyes looking inquisitively at us for a moment before loping back to their group in that delicious slow-motion amble giraffes have.


We have lingered at Sarara too long—perhaps because it has been such a stirring experience, perhaps because we’re afraid of what we will find when we get to Lake Paradise. Does the cloud forest there still have “that enchanted look” Osa Johnson wrote about, and are lions, African buffalo, and leopards still lurking in the ravines?

Having an idea of what lies ahead, Calvin had instructed us to be ready to go before the break of dawn. The sun hasn’t yet risen, and a chill ripples through the air as I drag my duffel bag down the hill to the mess tent. Standing there is our rangy Samburu guide, Philip Laresh.

“Today you go to Marsabit?” he asks me, naming the national park and nature reserve in north-central Kenya that contains Lake Paradise.

“Yes. Want to go with us?” I ask.

Laresh smiles shyly. “Do you think there will be many elephants?”

“I am hoping.”

The sun creeps up over the horizon and he declares, “I think you will see many elephants in Marsabit.”

The dust-caked four-wheel-drive vehicles are loaded up with our luggage, we down a quick cup of tea, and we’re off. Headed north on the final leg of our trip. To Lake Paradise. With the hope of seeing many elephants, though Calvin tempers my expectations with tales of Kenya’s several-year drought.


Beyond the town of Isiolo, the road disintegrates to chalky red dirt and near-desert scrub for kilometre upon dusty kilometre, with the occasional dik-dik or lone gazelle appearing in the distance. As she and her husband reached Lake Paradise in 1921, Osa Johnson said that she “felt nervous little shivers of excitement running up my spine and into my hair.”

I looked about me, slowly, breathlessly. I saw a spot of unsurpassable beauty—a cool, turquoise lake surrounded by clean, virginal forest where fantastically beautiful birds coloured the trees. 

This, I realized, was the end of our journey.

The side road to Marsabit National Park is unremarkable: a rust-coloured trail lined with red volcanic rocks. As we gain elevation, the landscape changes from high grass to thick green brush to a montane forest of old cedars and gnarled African olive trees, their branches laced with delicate filigrees of Spanish moss, just as Osa described in her memoir. Mosque swallows and swifts dive all around us while a pair of goshawks flirt in the crater thermals above.

As we come over a rise, the forest opens—and there before us we see a natural amphitheatre ringed by the sheer walls of a caldera. Calvin brings the vehicle to a stop. We climb out. Clouds of butterflies are floating over blue-flowered verbena. A flock of black-and-white geese, suddenly noting our presence, honk; white-winged sacred ibises rise from the oozy shoreline into the cerulean sky. And there, in the middle of a green, boggy meadow dotted with small pools of muddy water, is a small herd of elephants—seven, maybe eight. They stop their bathing to lift their trunks high into the air, waving them to and fro as if to welcome us to their home.

After many days and hundreds of kilometres of difficult travel, we have reached Lake Paradise.

Paradise Lake Kenya Africa

Diminished by boreholes, but still an oasis of green in arid north Kenya, Lake Paradise entrances visitors. Photo: Peter McBride


Paradise has changed—a lot—since the Johnsons’ day. The “cool, turquoise lake” with its “unsurpassable beauty” has largely disappeared and, according to Robert Obrien, a game warden who stops by our camp for breakfast and a chat, it may never return.

“There are more than 40 boreholes around Marsabit,” he tells us, which tap into underground water sources. “When I first came here, a few years ago, the lake had no water. Now there is some, but not much. The area also continues to suffer from deforestation. Every morning the women from Marsabit and its environs come into the forest to gather wood for their fires. This forest is the centre of life for the people and the wildlife here in northern Kenya. I’m trying to persuade the Rendille and the Borana—another local tribe—that if we can save the forest, we can save everybody.”

For now, several families of elephants still live in the forest. But the rhinos that carelessly tromped through Osa’s garden have disappeared completely, poached for their horns, as have the black-and-white colobus monkeys she loved to see.

Still. We spot large African buffalo, hear the growls of leopards and lions, and are visited by many green monkeys and baboons. We are stunned by the great variety of butterflies, which Osa also wrote about. Obrien tells us there probably are butterfly species around Lake Paradise that have never been formally identified, as well as plants, evolved over millions of years, found no place else in the world.

For several days we explore the forest, circumnavigating the lake where, every morning and evening, we continue to see small herds of elephants and buffalo come down to drink. We also spend a few mornings looking for the remains of the Johnsons’ elaborate camp, where they lived from April 1924 to early December 1926 while filming wildlife. According to one book I’d read, they had set up on a low, sloping ridge on the southwest end of the crater, and built a small house overlooking the lake, with a separate kitchen, storehouse, workshop, and an underground vault—the “skyscraper of the village”—that housed Martin’s stores of film. Behind the house, Osa put in a four-acre vegetable and flower garden, where she happily grew such American-garden blooms as roses, nasturtiums, and carnations.

“I suppose that the winds and the birds have now carried the seeds of my garden throughout the forest,” she wrote in her memoir, “and I hope the crater is abloom with the flowers on which I spent so much care, and with which we left a part of our hearts.”

I would love to come across a single descendant of her flower garden. But after much searching, we fail to find any wild roses or other flowers that don’t belong here. We do, however, discover where the Johnsons built their thatched house—on a flat spot littered with old foundation stones just off a well-trod elephant path, ringed by ancient olive trees where, you could easily imagine, the Johnsons did have a magnificent view of Lake Paradise. We celebrate our discovery that evening by breaking out a good bottle of single-malt whisky.

As we sip, I recall that during our stay at Sarara, Ian Craig had suggested to Calvin that he should consider creating a new community wildlife conservancy, around Lake Paradise.

“Marsabit still has more than 300 elephants,” he’d said. “There’s a massive opportunity for community development in northern Kenya—a way to bring the animals back into the garden. And Lake Paradise may very well be the key.” The recent discovery of an immense aquifer in the region may help tilt things even more in their favour.

When I get up the next morning the men are already knocking the camp apart. I find Calvin sitting in a canvas chair by the edge of the meadow looking through his binoculars.

“Smelly ellies,” he says quietly. “Eight of them.”

As we observe the elephant family perform its morning rituals, I am both discouraged and heartened: discouraged at what Lake Paradise has become since the Johnsons visited it almost a century ago; heartened that while something has been lost, something else has been gained—at Sarara. Twenty years ago, fewer than 50 elephants were counted in Sarara; now an estimated 1,500 ellies roam the reserve, along with sizable numbers of rare Grévy’s zebras, kudu, giraffes, and some 500 species of birds. Sarara is, I decide, the new paradise.

An hour later I’m seated in the small plane carrying me back to Nairobi. I had said goodbye to Calvin—and am already feeling nostalgic.

“Would it be possible to fly one more time around that lake?” I ask the pilot, pointing down. He dips the plane’s wing and we slowly float, like goshawks on thermals, one last time over Paradise.

“All I wanted to do now was get back to Africa,” Ernest Hemingway wrote of a long safari. “We had not left it, yet, but when I would wake in the night I would lie, listening, homesick for it already.”

Like Hemingway, I thought to myself as the plane turned for home, I still am in paradise. Yet a part of me is missing it already.



Kenya is a country in East Africa; its capital city Nairobi is in the south-central part of the country. Lake Paradise lies approximately 560 km north of Nairobi, close to the border with Ethiopia.

Getting There

Kenya Airways operates daily non-stop flights from Mumbai to Nairobi. Alternatively, it is possible to fly to Nairobi via a Middle Eastern gateway city.


Indian travellers to Kenya are eligible for an e-visa (, and need to have hotel arrangements and a travel itinerary ready. The visa fee is $51/₹3,400. However, you do need to plan ah​​ead. A yellow ​​fever vaccination (and certificate) needs to be obtained approximately one month before departure. Travellers also need a polio vaccination (and certificate)​.

When To Go

Kenya’s northern half, where both Samburu National Reserve and Marsabit National Park lie, is a semi-arid region with a long dry season. To see it at its greenest, plan to visit in the rainy season, mid-March into April, and November. Animal viewing is best in the drier months of January through March and June through October.

Getting Around

Lake Paradise, Samburu, and Sarara are reachable from Nairobi by small plane or, for the more adventurous, by four-wheel drive along often unpaved roads.

Outfitters And Lodging

Cottar's 1920 Safari Camp Kenya Africa

Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp. Photo: Michael S. Lewis/Corbis/Imagelibrary

Cottar’s Safari Service Customised safaris through East Africa; stay at Cottar’s 1920s Safari Camp or Cottar’s Private Homestead.

Sarara Camp Tented lodging in the community-administered, 8,50,000-acre Namunyak Wildlife Conservation Trust.

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy Choose between well-appointed cottages and tented quarters in this conservancy that now is part of the Mount Kenya World Heritage site.

Marsabit Lodge One of Kenya’s older park lodges, with simple accommodations in a pristine natural setting by a crater lake.

What To Read

I Married Adventure (1997), by Osa Johnson, is available online. Tales about Osa and Martin Johnson’s African travels and the Cottar family are included in Africa’s Big Five and Other Wildlife Filmmakers: A Centenary of Wildlife Filming in Kenya (2010), by Jean Hartley. The challenging plight of Africa’s elephants informs the 1992 book Battle for the Elephants, by Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton; Iain Douglas-Hamilton founded the Samburu-centred Save the Elephants organisation.

Appeared in the April 2015 issue as “Paradise Lost And Found”.

  • David Lansing is a writer who travels the world from his home in California.

  • Pete McBride is an American photographer and writer. He directed the award-winning Colorado River film "Delta Dawn" (2014).

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